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NFL concussion lawsuit settled, but no clear winner

Thousands of former players could share $1 billion over 65 years, but NFL won't have to admit guilt or liability

One day after a federal judge approved a settlement agreement that could see the National Football League (NFL) pay $1 billion to thousands of former players who accuse the league of covering up the dangers of concussions, the question over which side made out better remains under further review.

Under the approved settlement, former players would each receive an average of about $190,000, while the payout for players diagnosed with Parkinson’s or Lou Gehrig's disease in their 30s and 40s could be as high as $5 million. 

The settlement also includes $10 million earmarked for a special education fund to “promote safety and injury prevention for football players of all ages,” according to the ruling (PDF) by Senior U.S. District Judge Anita Brody.

While the NFL has publicly acknowledged the league's concussion problem by changing its procedure for evaluating injured players during games, and by launching an advertising and social media campaign to promote safe play at all levels of the sport, the deal means the league may never have to formally disclose what it knew and when about the risks of concussions and their treatment.

Robert Boland, a lawyer and professor of sports management at New York University, told Al Jazeera he believes the final deal is ultimately “a pretty good settlement.” 

“The NFL certainly wins on financial terms,” Boland said, describing the financial payout — which is open to players for 65 years — as a “very modest sum of money [for the NFL] paid over a long period of time.” 

The NFL’s estimated annual revenues stand at $10 billion — 10 times what the league may have to pay players.

On the flip side, Boland said the players “got a settlement which they might not have been able to win at trial or get to trial.” 

Taking the NFL to court would have required former players to prove that whatever medical conditions they faced could be linked to concussions suffered while playing in the league, something The New York Times described as a “major hurdle given the lack of documentation.” 

The settlement that was approved on Wednesday, however, does not require players to document concussions incurred during gameplay to be eligible for a payout, The New York Times reported.

"This settlement represents peace-of-mind to me, and to the thousands of other retired players who do not have serious symptoms, but worry about what the future may hold," former NFL safety Shawn Wooden said in a statement. 

But the settlement also means that the NFL does not have to admit any guilt or liability as to the validity of the players’ claims, which hold that the NFL "failed to take reasonable actions to protect players from the chronic risks created by concussive and sub-concussive head injuries and fraudulently concealed those risks from players," according to court documents. 

Meanwhile, payout for individual players will not be distributed until any appeals — which could hold up payments to thousands of players — are heard. 

The family of former NFL safety Dave Duerson, who committed suicide in 2011 and was later found to have had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) — a brain disease often associated with frequent concussions — said Wednesday that they planned to appeal because they objected to the exclusion of future awards for CTE in the settlement, The Associated Press reported. 

Some 200 other players who were originally part of the lawsuit have since opted out in order to pursue damages against the NFL on their own. They include the family of Hall-of-Fame linebacker Junior Seau, who committed suicide in 2013 and was later found to have also had CTE. 

With The Associated Press

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